After an exceedingly tense first round — featuring a record-setting 18 overtime games — the NHL playoffs resume Wednesday with the start of the second round. Gone are three of the top five regular-season teams — Chicago, Columbus, and Minnesota — but four enticing matchups remain.
Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers
It seems like ages ago that the Rangers outlasted the Senators in a seven-game first-round series in 2012. (Between the two teams, only 12 current players competed in that series, and neither franchise
has the same coach or GM as it did then.) Now, the two teams again face off in a matchup that brings to mind a line from A League of Their Own: “This is our daughter, Dottie, and this is our other daughter … Dottie’s sister.”
Yes, the Rangers-Senators matchup may lack the starry pizzazz of the big Penguins-Capitals pairing, but it still has its compelling attributes and a whole lot of pluck. Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goaltender of his generation, will try once again to earn his king’s crown on this side of the pond. The Senators’ Derick Brassard and the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad, who were swapped by the two teams last summer and who now lead their new squads in playoff scoring, will try not to pass the puck to the wrong teammates. The Senators will try to keep the Rangers’ power-play dial pointed to “abysmal,” while the Rangers will try to solve the enduring mystery of just how Bond villain/Ottawa coach Guy Boucher got that badass scar.
Lundqvist had one of the worst statistical regular seasons of his career, and he isn’t getting any younger. And yet, against Montreal in the first round, he was one of the major reasons that the Rangers advanced, finishing with a .947 save percentage. Lundqvist has a style of play that can work against him, optically: He’s so often in the right position that the saves don’t always look hard. (And of course, sometimes, the post helps.) But make no mistake: This guy has the reflexes and spatial awareness of a big cat. If his goaltending doesn’t convince you, maybe his water-bottling will.
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Let’s skip over the generic “Ovechkin vs. Crosby” and “Caps curse” narratives. I recently heard SportsNet pundit Jeff Marek opine about a possible shift from the timeworn philosophy that contending teams are required to rely on one stud defenseman to eat up minutes and play in all situations. To his point, Duncan Keith (Blackhawks), Ryan Suter (Wild), Brent Burns (Sharks), and Shea Weber (Canadiens) have all been eliminated; Drew Doughty (Kings) didn’t even make the postseason. But if you look at the rosters of the remaining playoff teams, the majority are still anchored by a big-minutes blue-liner — except Pittsburgh, for which Justin Schultz led all defensemen in average time on ice in the first round with a paltry 21:17.
The Kristopher Letang–sized hole in Pittsburgh’s D could be the difference in the Capitals-Penguins second-round rematch from last season. In the 2016 playoffs, Letang led his team in average ice time (nearly 29 minutes per game); the Pens, of course, beat the Capitals and went on to win the Cup. In this season’s first round, without the injured Letang, Pittsburgh had little trouble in dispatching Columbus. But the Capitals have more top-end offensive talent than the Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh’s forward lines are always dangerous; it’s on defense, in front of an intermittently leaky Marc-Andre Fleury, that the Pens could be vulnerable.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the NHL’s divisional playoff seeding, given that the league’s best two regular-season teams are meeting now, in the second round. I choose to look on the bright side — we should be happy that we’re getting Ovie-Crosby III, no matter what round it’s in.
Seems like the Penguins can just shake a tree and a speedy rookie to slot alongside Crosby will fall out. Last season’s version was Conor Sheary; this year, it’s the Nebraska native Guentzel, who moved to Sid’s wing in late February and has been parked on the top line ever since. Like Sheary, Guentzel is undersized but elusive, and an adept finisher of 87’s feeds. The 22-year-old, a third-round pick in 2013, scored 33 points in 40 regular-season games and led the Pens with five goals in the first round against Columbus. Where the hell do they find these guys?